Reading an account of the Round Oak Train Crash, I came across this passage:-

A good deal of suspicion, to say the least of it, must fall upon the hind guard, Frederick Cook, as to the mode in which the break of the last van was employed on the journey towards Worcester; and this suspicion is by no means lessened by the circumstance that he permitted half-a-dozen passengers to ride with him in his van, and that he employed one of their number, according to his own admission, to take the break off in two cases.

And later

In descending the incline from Round Oak to Stourbridge, there were four persons acting as breaksmen in different parts of the train...

which fixes the spelling break in 1858. But no dictionary definition of brake I have been able to find mentions this older spelling. Does anyone know when and why the spelling changed? Is there some etymological reason for this?

2 Answers 2


OED 1 gives the word as Brake, break, and gives citations from 1838, 1839, 1872 and 1870 for the spelling. (This fascicle was published in June, 1888.) It gives the earliest use of brake in this sense as 1772-82, so it was a fairly new sense in the early 19th century.

It comments:

[Etymology and spelling uncertain; prob. An application of the sense of ‘lever’ (BRAKE sb.4), or perh. that of ‘curb’ (BRAKE sb.4); since F. frein, It. freno, literally ‘bridle’, are used in this sense. This being so, the spelling break would be due to ‘popular etymology’, because it ‘breaks’ the motion.]


I found this: brake (n.1) mid-15c., "instrument for crushing or pounding," from Middle Dutch braeke "flax brake," from breken "to break" (see break (v.)). The word was applied to many crushing implements and to the ring through the nose of a draught ox. It was influenced in sense by Old French brac, a form of bras "an arm," thus "a lever or handle," which was being used in English from late 14c., and applied to "a bridle or curb" from early 15c. One or the other or both took up the main modern meaning of "stopping device for a wheel," first attested 1772.

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